Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basal Action Network was recently interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. In summary….
In the past 10 years, the demand for new electronics has increased significantly, and the old electronics continue to pile up.
So, what do you do with your old electronics and why can’t they be put into the landfill?
Jim Puckett explains, these discarded electronics are toxic waste although they are still not recognized by the United States Government as such. There are three categories of toxins found in almost all electronics: Toxic metals, Bromated Flame Retardants, and rare metals. These toxins are most toxic during electronic production and throughout the recycling process. These are generally very dirty processes, performed in poor countries under dangerous working conditions and creates a significant amount of pollution. Two terrifying examples of the terrors involved with electronic recycling are found in Guiyu, China and Accra, Ghana.
Guiyu is ground zero for electronic waste dumping. In 2001, Jim Puckett went over to investigate and expose what was actually being done there. He describes it as a Cyber-age nightmare. We witnessed many people using archaic technology such as, women “cooking” circuit boards over their stoves to retrieve the metals. To retrieve gold, a process called aqua regia was being used. This process involves putting the gold through two separate acid baths to separate and coagulate the gold. After the acid is used most of it is dumped directly on to the ground. He says their ground water is completely shot and at the time fresh water was brought in on trucks.
The other horrifying example is in Accra, Ghana where the environmental impacts are detrimental although for different reasons. The types of environmental impacts are related to the market and demand of the old electronics. China is the center for electronic manufacturing and there is a higher demand for scrap electronic material. In Ghana old CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors will be put on the market to be sold. What doesn’t get sold is disposed of through open pit firing. This is done mainly by children, many of which are orphans and runaways. After the CRTs have been burned, the left over metal scraps are collected and sold for a minimal price. Most devastating, he said, this burn field is located next to the Agbobloshie market, the main food supply for the area. When these monitors are burned, dioxins and BFR’s are released into the air and directly on to their food. (Check out this link to see photos from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/08/04/magazine/20100815-dump.html. )
Jim Puckett asserts, the dirty little secret of all this, is that 80% of all electronics are being shipped outside of the United States. He says recycling is just a name and it is often times hard for the individual to find out what the company really does with their “recycled waste.” Most people are trying to do the right thing by bringing their old electronics to superstores, thinking they will be safely recycled. In actuality they are being sold to brokers and “recycled” under some of the most horrifying conditions. In recent years, many states have enacted their own laws to keep electronics out of landfills. However, the U.S. Federal export Laws over ride the states laws preventing enforcement of electronic waste exportation. So we are cleaning up our own backyard and externalizing the costs. In other words, the people in places like Guiyu and Ghana pay the bill with their health and the destruction of their environment.
Even when done properly, the electronic recycling process is very dirty and creates toxic discharge. Jim Puckett, believes part of the solution is to build electronics without these dangerous toxins to reduce the environmental and health impacts at creation until they are discarded. He has spoken with engineers who say the technology has already been developed but for whatever reason, (economic gain?) it still has yet to be released.
Check out the full interview here http://www.npr.org/2010/12/21/132204954/after-dump-what-happens-to-electronic-waste